Song Structure: Writing a Song Refrain

When writing a refrain, think of it as the last line of a verse.

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Bob Dylan - The Times They Are A-Changin'A song’s refrain is often thought of as sounding like a very short chorus. But it’s actually operating more accurately as the final line of a verse. That’s important to keep in mind, because a refrain needs to sound like the logical conclusion of a melody in a verse-only structure, bringing the entire section to a satisfying close.

Refrains seem to come and go in popularity. Certainly the music of Bob Dylan gives us several good models for what a refrain should be doing, and what you can do to make a refrain fit your song.

For example, “The Times They Are a-Changin'” is a good example of a refrain that does what they typically do: finish the verse. “Like a Rolling Stone” uses a chorus that actually expands out of what starts as a good refrain, and then keeps repeating, changing the words each time.

A refrain is usually one or two lines long, and does three things:

  1. Finishes the lyrical thought of the verse.
  2. Brings the chord progression to a close (i.e., finishes the verse’s progression).
  3. Provides a melodic goal for the verse melody.

Let’s look at each of those points more closely:

  1. A refrain lyric needs to sum up the subject matter of the verse. So while the words of each verse will usually be different, the refrain draws all verses together. It’s why Dylan’s songs work so well with refrains: the refrain is a perfect section for providing a song’s philosophy. So a refrain can either provide the logical final line of a verse, as happens in “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, or it can provide a new thought that sums up the verse, as in “The Times They Are a-Changin'”.
  2. Chord progressions in a refrain will usually sound like a completion of the verse. It’s normal to have a refrain’s progression start on a non-tonic chord, moving then to the final tonic chord. So a couple of typical examples might be: F C, Dm G C, Am F C, etc. Because refrains are short, chord progressions for a refrain are usually 2 or 3 chords in length.
  3. It’s common for a verse melody to need the completion of either a chorus or a refrain. But a song that uses a refrain will usually require that the verse always need this completion supplied by the refrain.

It’s quite possible to start your song by developing a refrain first. Create a short 2- or 4-bar melody that starts on a non-tonic note, and then moves to finish on the tonic. Accompany that melody with 2 or 3 chords that end on the tonic chord. And provide a lyric that sounds like the summing up of an important idea.

Once you’ve done that, it becomes a bit easier to create a verse melody that leads into it. Allow the end of your verse to smoothly connect, both melodically and harmonically, to the refrain. The refrain itself can be repeated, and there are lots of other options for the specifics of a refrain, so use your imagination.

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Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter for songwriting tips and website updates.

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